Chapter 4: Where's the Off Switch?
"Hurry up, it's already started," Zound urged.
"Coming, coming," Zowie asked, coming over with the chips and salsa. "Move," she ordered.
"What's the magic word?" Zound asked.
"That's two words, not one."
"Move or I'll spill the salsa over you."
Zound looked mildly interested at that one. "And use my body as a plate to scoop the salsa on the chips? That sounds kinda kinky. You know people actually get together and organize events to do... that..."
He stopped when he saw the look in Zowie's eyes. A wise man knew when to fold them. He scooted over.
"Good boy," she smiled.
"The phrase loses its impact if you're just repeating it."
"Or acts as reinforcement or symmetry."
"Anyways," Zooks interrupted, "which one is this, anyways?" He sat down with a case of beer and started popping off caps with the expertise of a master. "And is that yammering Jar-whatsit in this one?"
"'Episode II: Attack of the Clones;' yes, Jar-Jar Binks is in it but he doesn't have as many lines as Episode I," Zowie reassured him, accepting a bottle.
"Zoiks, you coming?" Zed craned his neck around the chair and looked at their de-facto leader.
"Yes, yes," Zoiks replied, sitting down with a bowl full of pretzels and a frown.
"Problem?" Zound asked.
"Not really," Zoiks said absently. He was staring at his watch. "I just thought that Zed would have been back by now."
"Probably traffic," Zowie offered.
Maybe it wasn't her, Zed thought. Maybe it wasn't that particular Rogue. The one with a feline disposition and whimsy.
It was possible, right? It could be someone else. Someone else driving a limited-edition Reventón, of which only twenty were released to the public—plus one that was slated for the Lamborghini Museum, of course. A limited-edition Reventón that's also purple. Yeah. Big coincidence. But it's possible right?
Yeah, it was probably someone else. Out on a stroll. Or a drive. Just passing by. Gonna keep going 'round the corner, just you wait and see—
Um... slowing down. Slowing down. Green light up ahead, so no reason to slow down unless—lost! Yeah, poor guy's lost. Or gal. New in town, maybe. Or a fellow Gothamite who isn't familiar with this side of town.
Stopped. The car stopped. Not just stopped-to-check-the-map stop. No, this is a full engine-purring-down-lights-blinking-out stop.
Okay, Zed told himself. Calm down. Breathe. It's all right. Driver's probably just checking the map for directions. Something innocent like that. Just because the Reventón—the purple Purrmobile Reventón—stopped, doesn't mean it's She Who's Name Must Not Be Spoken.
After all, what were the odds that it would be Catwoman? What were the odds that it would be the same woman who he tried to meet the one and only time she contacted the Zs to set up a lair? What were the odds that it was the same Rogue who he was trying to have a simple business conversation in a dark, dank alley when they were so rudely interrupted by Robin and Batgirl in the alley? What were the odds that it would be that very mercurial individual who, by some type of logic that could only be called feline, somehow concluded that the junior Bats showed up because he got sloppy and led them straight to her? What were the odds that it could be the same vengeful fury who hunted him down like some mouse and expected—no, demanded—that she be compensated for her inconvenience and his supposed incompetence. And not with a nice cash payout or an exemption on the 'extra expenses' that were usually foisted on all the other clients. No sir, she wanted actual information on another client's lair. Doesn't make sense, does it?
The door hissed open, like some kinda shuttle from Star Trek. Or Doc Brown's time machine from the Back to the Future. Only no one from those series—not even that Seven of Nine chick—ever wore leather boots. With a heel. And while some of them wore outfits that didn't leave much to the imagination, they were never poured into skin-tight purple leather.
Maybe Bruce Wayne or one of the male Rogues had decided to start cross-dressing. Yeah, that's it. Crossdressing. Why not? Brave new world, right? Please, Zed prayed, please let it be...
The driver stepped out of the car. Zed's eyes swept over her body—definitely a woman, no doubt about it—noting her shapely things, the curve of her hips, her waist, her generous lack of complexity and...
"Hi, Zed," the woman chirped, shutting the door.
Zed had to face facts. Costume was right. Color scheme was right. Hallelujah, the curves were right. Even the voice was right.
It really was Catwoman.
Most red-blooded men would be staring and drooling and rapidly fast-forwarding through a mental montage of X-rated YouTube clips. Zed went through the same experience for a brief second before other images burst through to the forefront:
Jennifer Garner's Sydney Bristow laying the smackdown—or worse—in half a dozen different wigs and outfits per episode.
Summer Glau's River Tam taking out an entire horde of bloodthirsty Reavers singlehandedly.
Kate Beckinsale's Selene gunning or decapitating her enemies.
Uma Thurman's The Bride relentlessly eviscerating just about everyone in her quest for vengeance.
Catwoman, standing in front of him in all her purple glory, with claws and whips at the ready.
Zed reflected that someone, somewhere must really, really hate him.
"I've always found it rather funny," Zound said. "Padme's a queen."
"And then she became a senator," Zowie added, following his train of thought.
"Because in the universe according to Lucas, Naboo queens—"
"And what kind of dumb name for a planet is 'Naboo,' anyways?"
"I know, right? Anyways, Naboo queens 'serve' for a maximum of two four-year terms before stepping down."
"Like the President. Which means it's not really a monarchy."
"Exactly. Apparently the monarchy became an elected post."
"Who ever heard of an 'elected' monarch?"
"Who ever heard of an 'elected' monarch who became a senator?"
"Who ever heard of an 'elected' monarch who became a senator who appointed Jar Jar Binks as her proxy?"
"It's like all her brains and intelligence just dribbled out of her ears."
"Are you guys still nit-picking this thing?" Zooks complained.
Zound and Zowie looked at each other. "Well, yeah," they replied in unison.
"Just pipe down, will ya? I'm trying to watch this."
"You mean you're watching Natalie Portman," Zowie snorted.
"Zed would disagree with you if he was here," Zound said before glancing at his watch and frowning. "Still not back yet. Traffic must be nuts right now."
"Must be," Zoiks echoed unconvincingly. He stood up and left the room, pulling a cell phone out of his pocket.
After having three disastrous encounters with clients in the field, and many sleepless nights of planning, Zed had developed a strategy—an untested one to be sure, but now seemed as good a time as any to try it out—for any future encounters. He took a deep breath, turned around and ran away as fast as he could.
As he ran, he dug out his cell phone. He needed backup, and it was time to call in the cavalry. Wait. Which pocket was it in? Nope, not in his left front pocket. Strange, he normally put it there. Not in the right front pocket. Where was it? Back left pocket? Nope. Back right pocket. Nada. Tried the left front pocket again. No it wasn't there. WHERE THE FUCK WAS THE DAMN THING?
In desperation, Zed plunged a hand in his jacket pocket. Bingo! He yanked out his wallet from his jacket, fumbled it, almost dropped it, grabbed it in the nick of time and reached in again and grabbed the phone. Why did he put his phone and wallet there anyways? Shoving that thought aside, he moved his thumb to the phone to pull up... shit.
His phone wasn't turned on.
Zed cursed, thumbed the power button and continued sprinting, alternating between watching where he was going and the status of the phone. Come on, come on, come on, he silently urged it.
What? What do you mean 'No Signal Detected?' Zed wanted to scream. Without any other option, he kept running down the block. And another. And—
Finally! He pulled up his phone list, started scrolling down, cursed when he realized the number he wanted was on speed dial, accidentally hit the wrong number dialing—what with his shaking hands, jerking movements while running and efforts to navigate his way to the van. He cancelled the call and tried again, only to get the exact same result. Cursing, he focused on the phone, deliberating pressing the right keys. He was about to hit 'Send'...
...when he ran right into a lamppost.
Zoiks walked back into the room, phone in hand, frown still on his face.
"Well?" Zound asked.
"Nothing," Zoiks replied.
"Is the phone on?" Zowie suggested.
"What do you mean, 'it was?'" Zound said, turning his head away from the fight scene between Obi-Wan and Jango Fett on Kamino, which had just started.
"I got one ring out of it before the signal got cut off," Zoiks told him. "When I tried again, I got an automated message saying that the person I was trying to call 'was unavailable or out of the service area.'"
Zowie jerked her head around. "Say what?"
"You heard me."
"This isn't good," Zound fretted.
"No kidding." Zowie bit her lip. "What if he got lost?"
"Or mugged?" Zound added.
"Or run over?"
"Oh for the love of—will you guys stop it?" Zooks demanded.
If looks could kill, the glare Zowie delivered at him could have struck him dead on the spot. "Zed hasn't come back yet. His phone's not working or turned off or worse. And he knew damn well that Episode II was on tonight," she hissed through gritted teeth.
"Which is a guarantee that he'll be back," Zooks pointed out. "Soon."
"And if he isn't?"
Zooks rolled his eyes. "Then we go out and look for him instead of wasting time here sitting on our asses and freaking out."
"That would be the best plan under the circumstances," Zoiks agreed.
"Right," Zound nodded. "Zowie, Zooks and I will head out if Zed doesn't come back by the next commercial break. Zoiks, stay here and man the fort in case he returns while we're out."
"Hey, why can't I stay here?" Zooks protested.
"'Cuz you'll spend the time staring at Padme's midriff instead of watching the door," Zowie snapped.
Zooks opened his mouth. Closed it. Considered it. Shrugged in agreement.
There was this odd ringing. Well, ringing wasn't quite right. It was more like vibrating, come to think of it. And it was coming all around... wait. No, that wasn't right either. It was coming inside him. Inside his head, to be exact.
Groaning, Zed opened his eyes, only to close them immediately as a bright light stabbed through.
"Um, Zed? You okay?"
Zed tried to open his eyes again. The light wasn't so bad this time. Squinting, he made out a woman crouching above him.
A purple woman crouching above him.
"What happened?" he winced, slowly shifting to a sitting position.
Catwoman looked at him, looked behind her, and looked back at him. It was pretty much certain that Zed knew where Scarecrow's Joker lair was located. Unfortunately, Zed wasn't in the best shape right now. So she'd have to keep it simple.
"Zed ran from Rogue. Zed met lamppost. Lamppost won."
Zed just looked at her. For a moment, she thought she'd have to dumb it down even more. To her relief, he asked another question. "Where's my phone?"
She pointed at the road. Zed followed his gaze and groaned again when he saw a pile of circuitry, metal and plastic scattered across the asphalt. "It kinda slipped from your hand when you hit the lamppost and shattered when it hit the road," she explained. "And then a truck drove over it."
"Why does this always happen to me?" Zed moaned. "I just wanted to go home, where it's air-conditioned and watch some Star Wars. Okay, it's the prequel trilogy, not the original. But it's better than this."
She'd have to take his word for it, Catwoman decided.
"But no, I have to get a self-inflicted concussion and have my phone become road chow," Zed continued. "All because I ran into—and what do you want, anyways," he interrupted his monologue, staring at her in confusion.
"To find Scarecrow,"
"So I can find Joker."
"Wait, I thought you just said 'Scarecrow.'"
"And then you said 'Joker.'"
"So which one is it?"
Catwoman was starting to think that concussion was more serious than she'd thought. Either that, or he was just exhibiting the usual handicap that afflicts all men. She frowned, realizing that that sounded an awful lot like one self-obsessed, narcissistic green-not-alabaster-skinned prima donna. Clearly, this whole Joker-taking-Rogue-theme-for-joyride thing was starting to get to her.
Zed's eyes widened slightly. She was frowning. Was it him? Something he said? Maybe he'd pissed her off. Oh God.
"Joker's running around stealing other Rogues's themes," Catwoman said, coming back to the reason for her impromptu stop. No reason to give him the crimefighting do-gooder reason like some damn White Hat, but a variant on the truth would suffice. "It's starting to piss me off. It's already pissed everyone else off. So I want to find out where they are so I can go and chastise them. Which brings me to you."
"You want me to break client confidentiality?"
Good, it looked like he was recovering. "Yep," she confirmed.
"And tell you where Scarecrow's lair is?"
"So you can 'chastise' them."
"You got it." To illustrate her point, she lifted her hand up and showed him her claws.
"Oh God, oh God, oh God, oh God, OH GOD! You're gonna do it. You're really gonna do it! Last time you didn't. You just cracked your whip and flashed your claws and said you'd do all sorts of horrible things if I didn't do what you said. Like flay my skin off, one layer at a time. Or turn me into a scratching post! Or..."
Catwoman just stared at Zed. It was like a dam had broken inside his head, with the result that he was madly babbling away about all the horrible things she supposedly threatened to do to him. Many of which she never actually said.
Maybe, given their past history, showing him her claws wasn't the best course of action.
"Okay, that's it," Zowie said jumping to her feet and turning off the TV. "Zed isn't back yet. Time to go find him."
"Zoiks, can you plot the most likely route Zed would have taken—"
"Done," Zoiks interrupted, handing over printouts. Zooks lunged out, grabbed them all and immediately sat down at a nearby table. He rummaged around until he found a pen and started circling various spots on each printout.
"What are you—good idea," Zound nodded when he saw what his partner was doing.
"Someone wanna fill me in here?" Zowie asked in confusion.
"There's a slim chance that Zed couldn't last until he got back and decided to grab a bite to eat," Zound explained.
"These are all the places where he might've gone," Zooks added, "from fast food joints to restaurants."
"I'll take the car and go straight to the hideout," Zound decided. "Zooks, Zowie; I want you two to walk to the hideout, taking the route Zoiks outlined for us. Go on either side of the street so you can scan the sidewalks and check out all the possible dining venues. Zoiks will stay here and hold down the fort."
"I'll hack into the traffic camera feeds and listen to the police band as well," Zoiks agreed. "That might narrow things down a bit."
"Okay, we all have our assignments," Zound said.
"Let's bring our man home."
"...beat me to an inch of my life, then dump me off at Gotham General. Probably have to go for my ID, 'cuz they sure wouldn't be able to recognize me after you're done with me. Oh God: I do have my wallet, right? Is my ID in there? Driver's license? Anything?"
He was still at it, Catwoman marvelled. Must've been at least ten minutes of nonstop constant babble.
"...probably need major surgery after you're through with me. Especially if you call over some of your fellow Rogues for a party, with me as the piñata of honor. Step right up, take a swing. Two points if you whack his limbs, five points if you hit his head, ten points if you smash his nuts..."
Bruce would know what to do, she thought. He'd probably have several protocols just for this situation.
"Cats! Catwoman: cats. Cats: Catwoman. You've got cats. Big cats. Huge cats. At that sanctuary place. Oh man. Why couldn't I be an overweight, artery-clogging waddling mass? You could turn me into kitty chow, couldn't you? You'd dice me up and feed me to your cats if I didn't spill the beans, wouldn't you?
All planned out with contingencies and permutations, filed away in nice little folders in his head and on the Batcomputer.
"...or probably turn me into chopped liver. Or take out my liver and cook it. Or slow-cook it. Or pan-fry it. Like that Lecter guy in Silence of the Lambs, 'with fava beans and a nice Chianti.'"
But she wasn't Bruce. She wasn't Batman. So she'd have to humor and handle Zed in her own way.
"Zed," she tried. Nope, he was still in his own little world, generating scenarios depicting all the horrible things she would supposedly do to him if he didn't tell her what she wanted to know.
Catwoman grabbed his shoulders and looked him in the eye. "Zed," she repeated firmly, but softly.
That did it. He abruptly stopped and looked at her.
"Joker's out there, ripping off every other Rogue's theme. Sooner or later, he's going to go too far. Or someone will decide enough's enough and try to take him down. Either way, it's a safe bet that people will be hurt. Or killed.
"Normally I wouldn't go out of my way to stop a fellow Rogue. I've got rules about that sort of thing. But Joker sends those rules out the window. I'm not laughing. No one's laughing. And it's time that the clown learns that. You get me?"
She received a silent nod.
"Now, word is that he's hiding with Scarecrow. At the lair you guys built for him. Find Scarecrow; find Joker; send him back to Arkham in a nice neat package. Well, maybe not so neat, but you get the idea. So, you're going to tell me where to find him."
A word that you'd rarely, if ever, hear from the Bat crowd. Or the Rogue crowd. And it worked—probably because you'd rarely, if ever, hear it from the Bat or Rogue crowd. Zed told her the location. She waited long enough for one of the other Z's to show up before getting back in her Reventón and drive off.
Time to catch up with Bruce at the Iceberg. Hopefully he hadn't beaten poor Eddie to a pulp yet.